Former SNAP Recipient Calls For Expanded Benefits in Next Farm Bill | Civil Eats

Former SNAP Recipient Calls For Expanded Benefits in Next Farm Bill

In our new Faces of the Farm Bill series, anti-hunger advocate Esperanza Fonseca explains why she wants a farm bill that centers the nutritional needs of all low-income and marginalized Americans.

A girl pays for her mother's groceries using Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) tokens at the GrowNYC Greenmarket in New York City's Union Square. (Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A girl pays for her mother’s groceries using Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) tokens at the GrowNYC Greenmarket in New York City’s Union Square. (Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

This is the first installment of our new series, Faces of the Farm Bill, where we humanize the real-world impacts of ag policy. We interview Esperanza Fonseca about her experience as a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient and her thoughts on what’s needed to change food-assistance policies to keep people from going hungry.

Over the course of this year, we plan to spotlight people whose lives have been shaped by farm bill policies—from those reliant on nutrition assistance to new and beginning farmers to Native Americans, BIPOC, and other historically marginalized farmers. 

SNAP serves more than 40 million people with food assistance, but often winds up in the political crosshairs. As legislators tackle the 2023 Farm Bill, many Republicans are once again proposing SNAP cuts and hardened work requirements. This comes at the same time that a pandemic-era boost in benefits has been phased out in 32 states, impacting millions of food-insecure Americans.

Esperanza Fonseca

Esperanza Fonseca

In 2020, we interviewed Esperanza Fonseca, who had once lived out of a car and relied on SNAP to eat. When she realized her benefits wouldn’t permit her to buy a hot, prepared meal at a supermarket, she began advocating for a bill that expanded the Restaurant Meals Program (RMP). Signed into law in 2019, the bill approved the purchase of prepared meals for SNAP recipients who are over the age of 60, disabled, or experiencing homelessness.

Fonseca now advocates on behalf of resident physicians and their patients as an organizer with the Committee of Interns and Residents, the oldest and largest union working to improve the lives of resident physicians and the quality of healthcare in underserved communities, and she wants a 2023 Farm Bill that centers the nutritional needs of all low-income and marginalized Americans.

Lawmakers are once again debating making cuts to SNAP, as well as adding work requirements. What are your thoughts on this?

It is insidious to talk about adding work requirements in a country that doesn’t give a job guarantee. It is a very difficult job market. And on top of that, when you are already stuck in a bad situation, when you are homeless, when you don’t have a place to shower, a mailing address—which is the situation of the people I work with—it is not easy to find a job, much less a job that pays a living wage and offers full-time hours.

Nutritional assistance accounts for almost 80 percent of funds allocated by the farm bill, and some legislators say it has grown too large, perhaps at the expense of the agricultural programs in the bill.

In the richest country in the world, that’s a bit of a ridiculous conversation to be having. There’s more than enough profit generated to get money toward food production and toward feeding everybody. [There is] never too much money or too many resources being spent on feeding your population, especially in a country where, despite being a developed nation, we still have many, many children and adults who go to sleep hungry every night.

The pandemic ushered in a boost in SNAP benefits. Has COVID changed the conversation around SNAP’s importance?

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In the beginning, the pandemic was a real awakening for people to rethink these things. But in many ways, it hasn’t [changed]. We still have not moved toward guaranteeing universal health care for people, nor towards guaranteeing the right to be fed or the right to be housed.

What would you like to see in this upcoming farm bill in terms of expansion of SNAP program funding or, perhaps, new programs that might help individuals that you work with on a daily basis?

I think the biggest thing is simply a large expansion of SNAP benefits and a large expansion of the RMP. Because if you are low income but you’re not homeless, there should not be a restriction that you cannot purchase hot or prepared food with your SNAP benefits. It’s a paternalistic attitude that gives poor people such little assistance as it is, and then sets unnecessary restrictions on how they can use that.

What do you hear from clients you work with about the challenges they have with SNAP?

What I hear from people who are using it themselves is that it’s often not enough, and that the restrictions create unnecessary barriers. [SNAP] fails to address food and nutrition deserts, and there needs to be not only an expansion, but also an elimination of unfair restrictions that are placed on people, too many of whom are in the hardest situations of their lives and simply need help.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse and a former staff reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, and the spaces where these topics intersect. Read more >

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